The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum

The madness began at snack time, which we offer in our RIE parenting classes once the babies are all mobile and able to sit independently. Participation in snack time is always the children’s choice, and they quickly learn and enjoy the routine. They are requested to sit on the floor at the snack table (or on stools once they’re walking and able to sit at a slightly higher table). We ask them to wipe their hands, choose bibs, eat as much or as little of the snack (bananas) as they wish, and remain seated until they decide they are done.  We gently, but assuredly prevent them from leaving the table with food (video demonstration).

The children in this class were 12-13 months, and we’d been doing snack somewhat successfully for about six weeks. But on that day, there must have something in the air, because all the toddlers were testing me like crazy, sitting down and then popping up again, climbing on the table. It was a mutiny. One of the dads thought it would be funny to take a picture (ha-ha).

YES final best cropped mutiny at snacktime (3)

Lily’s testing was especially forceful and persistent, which was surprisingly out of character. She had always been a remarkably peaceful, mild and graceful baby.

Again and again Lily climbed onto the table and had to be helped down. Offering her the option to “get down by yourself” quickly became pointless, because she was clearly ‘out of herself’ and possessed with some fervent agenda.

“You want to climb on the table, but I can’t let you. I’m going to help you down,” I repeated…repeatedly.

Finally, Lily’s mom asked if she should come and help me, because it was impossible for me to assist the other children while Lily kept popping onto the table.

I could see Lily’s mom was perplexed and concerned. “Hmmm…maybe she’s confused because at home she sits on a stool next to her sister,” she suggested.

Suddenly doubting myself, I considered this for a moment. Could she be confusing the table for a stool?  It didn’t seem possible. Lily’s way too smart for that.

As Lily’s mom took over and was stopping her from climbing on the table, Lily became increasingly upset, started yelling, crying, having a total meltdown. I could see how this rattled her mom. I asked her, “Has she ever acted this way before?”  She said no and looked worried. I sensed she thought that Lily really wanted something to eat and was maybe hoping I would change the rules of our routine to make it work for her. The thought of doing so certainly crossed my mind. I was seriously questioning myself.

After five minutes or so of intense crying and struggling, Lily finally calmed down, sat with her mom for a bit and then started playing again, never having eaten a bite of banana.

Although Lily seemed fine, I was still uncomfortable because I knew Lily’s mom was disturbed by this episode.  Then a few minutes later she realized: “We’ve had family staying with us for the last five weeks…and it’s been fun, but disruptive and stressful. Maybe…”

Aha!  So perhaps sweet, gentle Lily had some overpowering feelings stuck inside her that she needed to release, and RIE’s therapeutic “all feelings welcome” environment plus our patient, persistent limit-holding was what allowed her to do it.

Young children are self-healing geniuses, have you noticed? Sometimes their tantrums are an expression of immediate discomforts like fatigue or hunger. Other times, however, they have a backlog of internalized feelings and will seem to deliberately and (seemingly) unreasonably push our limits so that we will hold steady and resist, which then opens up the escape valve they need to release these emotions. But this process can only work for them when we are able to set and hold limits and bravely accept their feelings. 

Experiences like Lily’s profoundly reiterate for me that we must trust our children’s self-healing abilities…and know that every one of their feelings is absolutely perfect.

The following week in class Lily did something else she’d never done before. As soon as she entered the classroom, she crawled straight over to me and put her head in my lap. After our debacle the week before, she seemed to be saying thanks…or sorry, but I really think it was thanks.

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